PAPILLON: a story of challenges overcome
Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski and key grip Dragan Jović Gagi discuss their experiences shooting on location with an equipment package that included ARRI Rental’s unique HEXATRON crane-positioning vehicle.
The classic novel PAPILLON, written by Henri Charrière and first published in 1969, is a semi-fictionalized account of the author’s life between 1931 and 1945, as a prisoner and escapee of the Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guiana. It was adapted into a 1973 Hollywood film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, and has now been re-interpreted in a new movie that casts Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in the same roles. Directed by Michael Noer, it was shot by Hagen Bogdanski with camera, lighting and grip equipment provided by ARRI Rental Budapest.
“I never watched the old film all the way through,” says Bogdanski. “We did look at some specific scenes, for the prison, and it was clearly a good film, but it felt quite dated. Both Michael and I wanted to modernize it and try to bring it to a younger audience.”
Together, Bogdanski and Noer decided that the two most impactful routes to modernizing the story would be through the production design and the cinematography. In addition, the lead actors would explore their own new insights into the two main characters.
Location decisions would clearly have a major impact on the look. Shooting in the United States was out of the question, due to the modest budget, and after briefly considering Venezuela, not far from where the story is set, the production based itself in Serbia and Montenegro.
“It was quite an adventure because not many people film there,” notes Bogdanski. “But going east meant our dollars went further; we were able to build our prison on the top of a mountain in the middle of Montenegro, with unspoiled 360-degree views and no need for CGI.”
The location shoot brought authenticity to the production design, and for a modern feel to the cinematography Bogdanski and Noer opted for a two-camera, handheld approach. “Michael has a background in documentaries and he wanted to shoot the rehearsals,” says Bogdanski. “This was quite new for me and I had to adapt. Of course, I have worked with two cameras before, but both of them handheld, shooting rehearsals, on location with changing weather—I was a little bit afraid of it at the beginning, but then I loved it. I think it had a very spontaneous feel.”
ARRI Rental supplied the production with ALEXA XT and Mini cameras out of its Budapest facility. “The Mini was quite new then, so I was keen to try it and I used it more and more during the show,” recalls Bogdanski. “I started out with the XT, but it is heavier and if you are shooting handheld for 12 or 13 hours a day, then every pound counts. I love the Mini, I think it could be the best camera ARRI has ever made.”
Bogdanski shot the entire movie with ARRI/ZEISS Ultra Prime lenses. “They are small and reliable, with a look that is not too harsh, but not too soft either. With the ALEXA sensor I think they give a very cinematic, film-like image,” he says. “We followed a wider approach, working with the 24, 28 and 32 mm lenses. Sometimes we used the same focal length on the two cameras, just at different angles. Or we might have a 28 mm on one camera and on the other a 32 or 40 mm, but nothing longer. We stayed physically close to the actors in order to feel the emotion, the sweat and the dirt, because it’s a very claustrophobic story.”
A delayed start-date and a location shoot that transitioned into winter presented challenges for the crew. Dragan Jović Gagi notes, “I have been working as a key grip for about six years and PAPILLON was the most challenging job I’ve had so far, mostly because of the locations we were shooting. We were in not very friendly environments and we were battling the weather.”
One piece of equipment that helped save time and increase production value under tricky conditions was the HEXATRON crane-positioning vehicle, available exclusively from ARRI Rental in Europe and the UK. Coupled with a SuperTechno 50, it was used to capture dynamic crane shots with speed and flexibility.
“The main advantage of the HEXATRON was how quick and easy it was to set up in places where it would normally be pretty much impossible to use that type of crane,” says Gagi. “There is no location that the HEXATRON can’t reach—you can park it anywhere and the hydraulic legs will raise and level the crane base in minutes. The power supply is also totally independent, so you don’t need generators and power cables to power the crane and remote head, which is great because you’re ready to shoot immediately.”
Bogdanski was also impressed by the versatility of the HEXATRON. “As I mentioned, we didn’t have a big budget and it helped us get some shots that we wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise,” he says. “It takes just a few minutes to set up and if the director or I realize that we need to move it slightly to get a better shot, it’s no problem at all and takes no time. It was an amazing piece of equipment and I hope to use it again.”